Martin Fowler has recently published an article, “Privacy Protects Bothersome People”, about privacy’s value in providing protection for people who are agitating for change. It’s a great counter to the argument “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” Some people have things they want to stay hidden and as a society we should regard it as very important they be allowed to keep these secrets.

However, there are flaws with the premise of the ‘nothing to hide’ argument. It’s flawed enough that we should not address it directly, instead we should be pointing out those flaws. Daniel Solove has written a paper, a book, and an article on this.

The issue with the ‘nothing to hide’ argument is that when presented well, it actually appears pretty strong. There may be specific situations we can cite to counter, but this feels like a rear-guard action, around the details.

The ‘nothing to hide’ argument frames the value of privacy as purely allowing people to hide things they’d rather others didn’t know. If that is the extent of its value, then it is easier to add more surveillance with more intrusive measures as the national security value gained through these can easily be justified against the limited value lost in reducing privacy.

Imagine if a highly evolved surveillance apparatus of a government somewhere was revealed — tough, I know. In response to the out-cry, imagine if the government confirmed its existence, and then proposed a solution — it is more of a stretch from here. Imagine if they proposed a system of ‘surveillance exemptions’. An independent body was set up. People could apply to this body for special status (activist, journalist, etc) and if they were approved then the surveillance apparatus was then required to destroy any information collected and to not collect any further. Thus freeing people on an as-needs basis from privacy loss.

This is a thought experiment, so just ignore for the moment the question of how networks of collected information would be managed in the face of exemptions. Also, this whole discussion is about how to make a government actually follow through on their promises, so that criticism doesn’t stand either.

Would you accept this proposal as a reasonable compromise to ensure those who need it can retain their privacy?

The point is that ‘nothing to hide’ is reductionist about privacy. There is more value from privacy than just what it implies. If we participate in the debate by only discussing the cases where it is legitimate (in the eyes of society) to have something to hide, then we are validating that limited value assessment of privacy.

Solove points to some examples of the further value of privacy. To his set I would add personal identity.

Your personal identity controls and directs your interactions with other people, and particularly what about yourself you’re likely to reveal. We have complex identities with different facets. We’ll publish some things on a public Twitter account, and others on our personal Facebook pages. Privacy is the tool we use to maintain control of our own identity. With our privacy we retain control over what is seen and, as a result, how we are perceived.

This is why privacy invasions are viscerally creepy events; why it is called an ‘invasion’; why we react to it so emotionally. And why arguments defending our right to privacy need to be deeper than allowing us to hide secrets, however legitimate.